1872 Routes from Caledonia MN to Tipton KS

Figure 1. Rivers and cities from Caledonia to Tipton
Original publication on 2013.10.30. Updated  2013.11.10 and 2014.06.21. © Thomas G. Kohn, 2014.

Katherine Reinert and her family of five children arrived in Tipton, Kansas after a trip of 600 miles or more from Caledonia, Minnesota. Although a family document asserts the travel was by wagon train, no established trails cut a diagonal path from southeastern Minnesota to central Kansas. Even today, the route would pass by larger cities like Dubuque, Omaha, and Topeka to reach the destination. Travelling first down the Mississippi River to some terminus downstream seems more logical (Figure 1). Clinton, Davenport, or Burlington in Iowa or Hannibal in Missouri are possible locations for the transition from travel by river to travel overland. The river port of St. Louis is a possible location for transfer to a steam ship up the Missouri River.

Overland from Iowa

Travel from Clinton, Davenport, or Burlington Iowa seems unlikely at first glance. However, I recently learned of the Lane Trail, which was a popular route for free-state partisans who hoped to affect the so-called Kansas Question as the state formed. The trail was in use from 1856 through at least 1861. Further research may clarify its importance in the 1870s.

Overland from Hannibal

At Hannibal, a traveler would find easy connection from riverboat to rail. The eastern terminus of the Hannibal to St. Joseph Railway is within a tenth mile from the city's river landing. Soon after the last section of railway was completed in 1859, President Abraham Lincoln rode the system to make a speak in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The railway became an important 1860 link from post offices in the east to the Pony Express and then later to the Overland Stage routes. A short-lived 1862 contract with William A. Davis allowed for sorting mail in special train cars and performing functions previously done in St. Joseph. The connection between Hannibal and St. Joseph remained in place through more than a century and under several companies.

In 2014, I drove alongside the train route to understand the terrain and distance. The land has gently rolling hills and large expanses of farmland today. The passage in 1872 was likely through lightly forested land. The route arcs northwest from Hannibal to Palmyra, Missouri. Then the route angles southwest to Monroe before it continues almost due west toward St. Joseph. The train likely stopped in the major towns of Macon, Brookfield, Gallatin, Chillicothe, and Breckinridge.

From the 1860s through the 1880s, St. Joseph was a major center of provisioning wagon and stage travel west into Kansas. Warehouse Row consisted of a 4- by 6-block area that provided livery, livestock, housewares, foods, clothing, and many other supplies that would be scarce in the pioneer areas of Kansas and Nebraska. No bridges spanned the Missouri River until the St. Joseph Swing Bridge was built in 1873 for rail traffic. Prior to that, crossing the river was only by one of several ferries. Urban development has obliterated most landmarks of late 19th-Century St. Joseph, and several websites provide photographs from that time.

Up the Missouri River

The Missouri River is navigable from its confluence with the Mississippi north of St. Louis, and steamboats made the journey on a regular schedule. Four river towns were growing in importance along the Missouri River border with Kansas: Kansas City, Leavenworth, Atchison, and St. Joseph. The distance up the Missouri from its confluence is 515 miles to Kansas City and about 600 miles to St. Joseph.

From Kansas City, steamboats operated on the Kansas River as far upstream as Fort Riley, with the height of activity stretching from 1854 to 1866. However, this extension of river travel is less likely, since from the middle of the 1860s, rail service took over the freight transport.

The Prairie Trails

Figure 2. Trails of the American prairie, 1860s
Our understanding of overland travel in pioneer times is colored by mythology built by the Western genre of movies and television series. Among other common assumptions is the impression that the transfer from steamboat to wagon train means a change from relative ease to arduous work. That work starts with buying wagons and teams of horses or oxen. At the same time, others in the forming wagon train must purchase supplies for the trail journey and essentials for setting up the new home. Others likely must seek out information on what to expect on the trail and what trail markers might indicate a necessary change in the path.

Through the early 1870s, the lower section of the Kansas River as it approached Kansas City provided the eastern termini of the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail (Figure 2). Our current understanding of “the Trail” is misleading. No pioneer trail had longlasting markers, and the verbal directions were shrouded by the vastness of the American frontier prairie. Frederick A. Wislizenus wrote in his 1846 diary of travelling the Santa Fe Trail, “This morning we passed the road to Oregon, that leaves, about eight miles from Round Grove, the Santa Fe Road, and turns to the right towards the Kansas [river]. A way post had been put there, marked: ‘Road to Oregon.”” He was lucky to have seen the way post, since the usual directions referred to a grove of trees or a bend in the river.

The Trails into Kansas

Rivers, towns, and forts in Kansas
Perhaps the Caledonia-Tipton wagon train followed the Oregon Trail as far as Topeka and then headed west for Fort Riley (Figure 3). The trails following the Smoky Hill River and Solomon River were well established by 1872. The likely route continued from Fort Riley along the Smoky Hill Trail and, at the confluence of the Solomon River west of Abilene, the group might have chosen to follow the Solomon River northwest, while the Smoky Hill Trail headed west toward Salina and Fort Hays.

Speed of Travel

Travel by stage coach could be as fast as seven miles per hour over short distances, but loaded wagons might travel only a couple miles per hour—or even less with wet weather or wagon breakdown. The stage coach travelled through the night and stopped only to allow momentary rest and a meal. While stage coaches sped from one station to another and received a fresh team of horses and drivers, the oxen or horses pulling the load of the wagon train needed rest overnight. Making camp, tending the livestock, and bedding down for the night made for a shorter daytime of travel. The likely time on the trail would have been a week for the trip from Fort Riley, and possibly as much a month for the trip from St. Joseph.

Railway Alternatives

Several biographical sketches in Early Day Couples of Tipton, Kansas and The People Came refer to settlers arriving by train at either Wilson or Cawker City. Then the settler had an easier 38-mile route, directly north from Wilson to Tipton or a very short 14-mile route directly south from Cawker City. Often, however, the date of arrival is not given. Therein lies the tough history.

The desirability of rail passage from the Mississippi River to the western territories and state was long felt. As early as 1834, Dr. Samel K. Barlow was an advocate of railroad building. Nonetheless, surveys even of Missouri were not active until a period from 1853 to 1861. The first active rails reached but 125 miles west of St. Louis, to Jefferson City, Missouri.

Many speculative railway companies actively lobbied the first territorial legislature and occasionally received charters for developing rail travel, as early as 1855. The early focus, though, was routing from Kansas City, Leavenworth, and Atchison southwest to Lawrence and Topeka or yet further south toward the Gulf of Mexico or Santa Fe, New Mexico. Cutler reported that, finally, “on March 20, 1860, the first iron rail on Kansas soil was laid at Elwood, Doniphan county, opposite St. Joseph.” But the line was only five miles long, the track rough, the way crooked.

The impatient Kansas legislature convened and enacted a five-point plan for rail development. In fits of work, the rail system expanded to Lawrence, Kansas in 1864 (40 miles), to Topeka in 1865 (another 27 miles), and nearly 100 miles further west in 1866. Finally in 1869, the governor could announce that rail had been laid to within 35 miles of the state’s western boundary. The whole 400- by 200-mile area of Kansas was served by 1,283 miles of track in 1870. However, the lines were operated by a large number of independent companies, making connections difficult, if they existed at all. Blackmar reports that The Kansas Monthly of November 1879 listed a Union Pacific branch that served Osborne City, Kansas and a Kansas Pacific branch that served Beloit, Kansas. Likely it was only then that settlers could begin using rail transport to Osborne county and Mitchell county.

For that matter, the trail system was being bypassed by the establishment of what were then called “highways,” collection of road taxes, and setting regulations for the engineering and building of the roads. The stage routes that had connected the system of forts in early pioneer days, were being rebuilt as territorial roads. The legislatures of 1855, 1857, 1859, and 1861 created a total of 156 highways. The 1863 legislature provided for bridges, culverts, and other improvements, without which the roads were impassable at some seasons each year. The 1871 legislature provided that all section lines in 14 counties—Mitchell county among them—be public highways.

Relevant Links


Hannibal to St. Joseph, Missouri Railway

In resettling from Minnesota to Kansas, the Reinert family may have taken a paddlewheeler down the Mississippi River to Hannibal, Missouri. There they might have transferred to a new railway system that took them to St. Joseph, which sits opposite Kansas on the Missouri River.
Missouri railways 1874

The counties they would pass through from east to west are
Marion county through its Mason, Miller, Liberty, South River, and Warren townships

Ralls county through its Clay and Saline townships.

Monroe county through its Monroe township.
Shelby county through its Jackson, Salt River, Jefferson, and Gray townships

Macon county through its Round Grive, Hudson, Bevier, Callao, and Lingo townships

Linn county through its Bucklin, Yellow Creek, Brookfield, Jefferson, and Parsons Creek townships

Livingston (Chillicothe)
through its townships

Caldwell county through its Breckinridge, Gomer, Hamilton, and Kidder townships at the edge of Daviess county to the north 

DeKalb county through its Grand River, Colfax, and Washington townships (to the north) and Clinton county (to the south) through its Shoal, Platte, and Lafayette townships

Buchanan county through its Marion and Washington townships